Ranil Wickremesinghe's crown of thorns
SUBHASHIS MITTRA - Wide Angle
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. The saying aptly describes the newly elected Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has to fix a collapsed economy, end political turmoil and unite deeply divided country.
Wickremesinghe, who represents United National Party, has donned the mantle at a turbulent time in Sri Lankan history.
He faces an uphill task in view of an unprecedented economic crisis and social tumult that has turned the island nation into an island of sorrow.
For a leader who was the lone member of his party in Parliament, his victory in Sri Lanka’s presidential elections is nothing but a political windfall.
But, it is challenges galore for Wickremesinghe. The first task is to refurbish his own image as he is largely seen as part of the problematic political establishment led by the discredited Rajapaksa family.
He needs to reach out to the people, including the protesters in Colombo demanding his resignation, by building credibility with them by distancing himself from the very faction of the ruling SLPP backed by Mahinda Rajapaksa that won him the elections.
Protesters had gathered outside the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo soon after Parliament elected Wickremesinghe, a six-time prime minister, as the new President.
Wickremesinghe was also Rajapaksa’s finance minister and became acting president after he fled following a popular uprising.
He is widely accused of protecting the embattled Rajapaksa family and during the recent demonstrations, crowds set his personal residence on fire and stormed his office.
If he fails to satisfy the protesters, then general elections, which Sri Lanka can barely afford at this point, will be the only remaining course, say analysts.
They fear that elections would only further delay the task of economic rebuilding, particularly the much-needed negotiations with the IMF for a bailout.
The tiny nation of 22 million people is in the grip of a mass uprising against the family responsible for economic collapse, marked by shortages of food, fuel and medicines for months.
International aid agencies have said that nearly 7 million Sri Lankans, or one-third of its population, are facing hunger as food supplies have run out, or are out of reach of most.
Pictures had gone viral on social media, showing protesters storming the presidential palace early this month, forcing then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country.
And sadly enough, the cauldron still boils as the social turmoil shows no signs of abating.
The 73-year-old a lawyer-turned politician is believed to be close to India and its leaders.
Wickremesinghe built a personal rapport with Sri Lanka's immediate neighbour India and visited the country on four occasions - October 2016, April 2017, November 2017 and October 2018 - during his previous term as the prime minister.
During the same period, Prime Minister Modi made two visits to Sri Lankan and he also responded to a personal request from Wickremesinghe to help the island nation set up the 1990 ambulance system - a free health care service which became immensely helpful during Covid-19.
New Delhi will have to review its options, given the proximity, and as External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar told an all-party meeting, the Government will naturally worry about the “spill over” from the Sri Lankan situation.
The Modi government has adopted a three-pronged strategy — expressing sympathy with the people of Sri Lanka and their “quest for stability and economic recovery through democratic means”; extending “unprecedented” financial assistance, credit lines and essential food, fuel and medicines worth U.S.$3.8 billion since January 2022; and distancing itself from the Rajapaksas.
The policy has reaped dividends in public goodwill in Sri Lanka for India, particularly in comparison to other partners such as China.
The island nation has started talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over a bailout and needs to renegotiate its debt agreements with creditors. This is one of the toughest challenges facing Wickremesinghe.
The country is bankrupt and has nearly exhausted its already scarce supplies of fuel and is unable to buy the goods it needs from abroad. Industrial production has nosedived, export earnings have dried up and government coffers are dry.
So far, India has done well to provide aid to its struggling neighbour while refusing to take sides, at least publicly, in Sri Lanka’s domestic politics.
New Delhi has insisted that its commitment is to the people of Sri Lanka and to democratic values. It must continue with that position. Sri Lanka’s future is at stake, as is India’s credibility in its neighbourhood.
Being a friendly neighbour with a common bond of democracy, India needs to be supportive of the Sri Lankan people’s quest for stability and economic recovery through democratic means. But, with the country likely to remain a political and economic tinderbox, India must tread with caution.